“Having a bad day? Going nowhere fast? The economy making you tense? Afraid to walk the streets? Life in the ‘90s got you down? What are you going to do about it?”
So begins the voiceover from the trailer for the 1993 movie Falling Down, about (according to the film’s marketing department) an ordinary guy having a very bad day.
Here’s Falling Down’s basic plot (no spoilers): a disenfranchised white guy who’s been cut off from the so-called American Dream decides to lash back at society with a baseball bat and a gym bag full of automatic weapons.
Not an obvious recipe for success in today's social climate, which is why context is important in understanding movie-going culture at the time.
The Reagan '80s were still lingering at the time of the film's release. The LA riots were less than a year old. The Columbine massacre was six years away.
The filmmakers behind Falling Down believed it was relevant for its time.
In promoting the film during its theatrical run, star and Academy Award winner Michael Douglas said of his character’s relatability: "There's a lot of people who are a paycheck away from being on the streets and being out of work who did everything right. They've been responsible. They tried hard, [and] they don't know what went wrong! We won the war, where's it all at?"
Audiences, for the most part, related. Falling Down did business in 1993. For two weeks, it was the top-grossing movie in the country and would end pulling in north of $40 million dollars in the US
In 2019? Doubtful a script centered on a marginalized white guy turned social vigilante would even get green-lit into production today.
Seen through a 2019 lens, Falling Down looks at best like a movie about a middle-aged snowflake having the ultimate meltdown. At worst, in a Make-America-Great-Again and post-Charlottesville world, it looks divisive, insensitive, and decidedly un-woke.
Let’s, for a moment, forgive the film for the ill-timing of its release--less than a year after LA burned following the Rodney King verdict--and concede that #WhiteLivesMatter was 25 years away and therefore not the filmmakers' intended message.
Let’s also assume the film’s screenwriter, Ebe Roe Smith, was genuine when he said: “The main character represents the old power structure of the U.S. that has now become archaic, and hopelessly lost.”
“Hopelessly lost” seems to have been the sentiment super-critic Roger Ebert noted about the film’s main character when he said, “He seems weary and confused. And in his actions, he unconsciously follows scripts that he may have learned from the movies, or on the news, where other frustrated misfits vent their rage on innocent bystanders.”
I’ll concede, Falling Down succeeds in presenting its central character as a victim--perhaps of his own deficiencies as opposed to society’s but a victim nonetheless.
Another celebrity critic, Vincent Canby, offered perhaps the keenest insight about Falling Down when he called it, “the most interesting, all-out commercial American film of the year to date, and one that will function much like a Rorschach test (ink blots) to expose the secrets of those who watch it.”
Hal Hinson of the Washington Post was a bit more obvious: “This guy is you. At one time or another, we’ve all had these thoughts.”
Hinson’s sentiment exposes Falling Down’s 2019 problem. People do indulge thoughts of settling the score with automatic weapons. The difference between the early ‘90s and today is that today the indulgence doesn’t end with fantasy like it we see in Falling Down. Today it too often ends in a mass shooting.
Is liking Falling Down a litmus test for dangerous instability? Hardly. It’s a movie, a two-hour fantasy romp where the rules and morals get rewritten by the average white guy turned victim pleading to anyone who will listen what about me?
The movie came and went and is today seldom seen or talked about. (Even the most macho-minded cable networks don’t dare air it today.)
But that doesn’t mean Falling Down hasn’t had a lasting influence.
The film’s character touched a nerve in the early 1990s and a few soon-to-be very rich writers in Hollywood noticed.
Let me now bring into the conversation a few other famous white-guy characters from the last two decades. Tell me if you detect a thread.
Tony Soprano from The Sopranos.
Walter White from Breaking Bad.
Walt “Get off my lawn” Kowalski from Gran Torino.
Negan from The Walking Dead.
Ari Gold from Entourage.
What do these guys have in common?
All white guys, sure. What else?
All antiheroes? We could go that route if we wanted to win points with our modern-lit professor. But what I’m after isn’t so academic.
They're all working-class grinders who react to a competitive and at times unfair world by acting on their own terms and playing by their own rules.
In other words, the world deals them a shitty hand, they take it like a man and fight back with purpose, drive, and an endless supply of YouTube-ready one-liners.
Talk about a recipe for character success.
With the exception of The Walking Dead’s Negan, these guys are family men with the requisite patriarchal problems. (Negan was a family man until the zombie apocalypse, so he gets a pass.) They dominate colleagues and competitors at work with bulletproof machismo then try to play the sensitive alpha at home.
When they succeed, the drama works. But when they fail, it’s downright riveting.
Tony Soprano and Walter White present the best cases in point for how wildly entertaining and captivating this kind of work/life balancing act can be onscreen. They’re the main characters of their respective shows, the baddest of bad guys whose wicked drive has landed them at the top of their professions.
But it’s the family storylines (not the bad guys doing bad things narrative) that make The Sopranos and Breaking Bad stand out as dramas and have kept these shows relevant years after their finales aired.
Like Falling Down’s central character (a divorcee trying to get to his daughter’s birthday), the Tony Sopranos and Walter Whites don’t have all the answers of fatherhood and husbandry. In that respect, they’re just like us.
But they’re nothing like the TV dads that dominated the 1980’s, dads like The Cosby Show’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable who was always in control, always had the answer, and convinced a generation of boys that everything was going to be OK as long as you stay honest and do your best.
That’s bullshit, of course. Falling Down called it out in 1993. The Sopranos followed suit just a few years later. Breaking Bad a few years after that and so on.
Now, what’s the major difference between Soprano, White, and the rest of their ilk and the hapless chuck in Falling Down?
The new guard never whines when they lose. They come back stronger with a better plan. They win. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in recent years, it's how much American audiences love winners.
Here’s another way these guys are different from Falling Down: their vehicles didn’t do a just a little business. They were gargantuan hits that made fortunes for their creators and cultural phenomenons of their characters.
How’s this for proof?
The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are widely considered two of the greatest TV series of all time; both are among the most watched shows in cable TV history.
After 10 seasons, The Walking Dead may be losing some of its bite. But how popular a Halloween costume was Negan (barbed wire bat and all) three years ago?
Entourage may not make anyone forget All in the Family anytime soon in terms of social commentary and ratings dominance, but Ari Gold Best of videos continue to rack up millions of views on YouTube.
And Gran Torino seems poised to unseat The Shawshank Redemption as cable TV’s most aired movie. Even if it never wins the belt, the film can relish in the nearly $300 million dollars it made worldwide.
Step into the gauntlet, dear reader. If you're not convinced there's a pot of gold waiting on the other side, then Google the net worth of David Chase (writer, creator of The Sopranos), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Doug Ellin (Entourage), and Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead).
Now get off my lawn and go write a story that turns the supportive TV mom of the 1980s into a badass who dominates the boardroom and battlefield but struggles with her teenagers.
You can thank me when you win your Emmy.
Fred Smith was born in the '70s, wore long socks and short shorts in the '80s, played drums in bands in the '90s, and became a husband (to the greatest woman on the planet) and a father in the 2000s. This decade he's made a few movies and written a few books you can check out on this site.
Stick around. Have a few rounds on the house. Then, you know...buy something.
Fred Smith's latest book of short stories, The Closet, is now available on Amazon HERE.